If Bolton Wanderers require a passionate, vibrant manager to revive their fortunes following near-extinction, Keith Hill could prove ideal.
After 12 years and 647 games as a No 1, the fires still burn in a local-born man who is speaking early on a sunny morning at the club’s Horwich training base. Hill has a penchant for a soundbite, offering up arresting epigrams on “loving that ball rolling” and how, as a relegation battle strategy, “digging yourself deeper in the hole” can shift pressure on to rivals.
That is particularly prescient as Wanderers were bottom of League One with -11 points when Hill took over on 31 August, having suffered a 12-point deduction for entering administration. The club remain on that total but Hill is ebullient when asked whether they can stay up.
“We’re sat here because we believe in the dream – the impossible dream,” the 50-year-old says. “I did get asked the question: ‘Did you ever think no?’ I said: ‘Absolutely no chance.’ I didn’t look at the minus points, I didn’t look at the league position. I didn’t look too intensely at last season’s form, losing 30 games out of 46 and losing four out of the first five this season in the league.”
Wanderers were saved from following Bury into oblivion when the Football Ventures consortium, led by the businesswoman Sharon Brittan, bought out Ken Anderson on 28 August in a deal worth around £15m for the club and the Bolton Whites Hotel, which is part of the stadium complex.
Hill has total trust in a group that also numbers the Pink Floyd drummer, Nick Mason. “They are great people, warm, really personal with respect to your wellbeing,” he says. “I’m not too sure on the numbers involved. I’ve met Sharon, Emma [Beaugeard], Michael James – [he’s] local [and] they’ve been brilliant. They’re not hiding anything. Personally I think they should express themselves to this public even more because they are brilliant people.
“I feel as though it’s clean – we’re starting from scratch. We’re trying to re-establish Bolton’s greatness. It won’t happen overnight.”
Hill previously managed Rochdale twice, from 2006-11 and 2013-19, gaining promotion from League Two in each tenure, and was in charge of Barnsley in the Championship in between. He pulled off an “impossible dream” with Rochdale two years ago.
“We were 12 points adrift with 16 games to play,” he says. “The meeting with the players was all about: we probably cannot get out of the bottom four until the last week, so no panic.
“So, if we lose game one, then we move to game two. And we will pick up points, generate energy, enthusiasm, momentum. Don’t panic. Somebody once said: ‘If you can’t dig yourself out of a hole, dig yourself in deeper, protect yourself.’ Being comfortable in that bottom four – sometimes, it puts the mind-bombs in the opponents who are playing against you. All the pressure is on them. Before you knew it, we were within striking distance of fifth-bottom. Then it’s a real panic – not from us because we’re trying to create this impossible dream. It went to the last game, we played Charlton at home and got three points and secured our safety in League One. That was amazing.”
Hill lost his first Wanderers match, suffering a penalty shootout defeat in last week’s EFL Trophy tie with Bradford City. Twenty-four hours earlier Hill made nine signings as he moved to ease the burden on the young players being fielded because of the financial predicament.
Hill and his assistant, David Flitcroft, started planning before being interviewed by Bolton.
“Once Phil [Parkinson, his predecessor] left, it was like: ‘We’ve got to get in front of the people who are going to make the next appointment.’ While we were doing that, we were focusing on recruitment whether we got the job or not.
“We couldn’t go into the interview and, if they said, ‘We are going to give you the job’, it’s: ‘Oh shit, no plan.’ We put a football jigsaw on the flip chart [that said]: ‘This is how we want our team to play, these are the players available.’ A ‘no’ [from a target] is as good as a ‘yes’ when it comes to making decisions on players.”
The recruitment drive came too late for any of the nine to face Bradford. And although Hill has already lost one of the players, Joe Bunney, after the defender broke ribs and his collarbone in a car crash, there is confidence the XI the manager can now send out, starting with Saturday’s visit to Rotherham United, has the requisite quality.
“It’s not a skeleton 11,” Hill says. “It’s an experienced 11 and we’ve got some very good young players who need help, so we are now focusing on a group of 16 to 18 with those who are experienced added into it.”
Hill has a vision of Bolton’s style. “I like winning, entertaining football,” he says. “Passing, creating goalscoring opportunities. I want the effort of the team, the intelligence of the team. They’ve got to love that ball. This is an unbelievable environment to work in.”
Hill offers an insight into how football-crazy he remains. “I’ve got a young boy – Sidney – who’s eight and I’m guiding him in a different way. I ask him questions. He loves football, he wants to be in a football environment. I ask him everyday: ‘Do you want to play football? Do you want to go out and play football? You know you can do something else if you want.’
“It’s got to be enjoyment. There’s balls in every room. The wife’s not too pleased about me and Sidney playing football in the kitchen or in the living room, as you can imagine, or on the landing up the stairs. Balls are everywhere.”
Hill does, though, draw the line somewhere regarding where he and Sidney play. “No,” he says. “Not in the bath.”
The Guardian Sport